Marcel Khalife sang songs straight from the heart in Doha
Marcel Khalifé, beautiful Arabic poetry, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, and a full house at Katara Opera Theatre. That should be enough information to imagine the magnificence of the concert that Doha experienced on Sunday.
If that doesn’t help, this should. The melding of Khalifé’s oriental melodies and the orchestra’s flowing symphonies was so free-flowing and fluid that the first audience applause came 40 minutes into the performance. To cheer at any moment before that, seemed like an intrusion into the train of thoughts and rhythms of the geniuses on stage.
Master Lebanese singer-composer-oud player Khalifé’s “Ghina’iyat Ahmad Al Arabi on poems of Mahmoud Darwish” was an exercise in unifying emotions using diverse tools of music. The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO), helmed by conductor Howard Arman, dived into Western Classical flourishes while both Khalifé and Oumeima El Khalil on vocals, met them halfway by singing songs weaved out of Arabic poetry of the legendary Palestinian poet and author Darwish.
What elevated this fusion to an expansive, cinematic level was soprano Felicitas Fuchs and MDR Radio Choir of Leipzig pitching in with chorus sections, and providing a rousing vocal backdrop. While the orchestra was in top form as always – featuring some haunting cello playing and joyous bits of bassoon among many other highlights – it was Khalifé’s son Rami who often thrilled the audience with his mastery over the grand piano and fashioned himself as a bridge between poetry and music.
In his gentle yet assertive voice, Khalifé, backed by Oumeima’s soulful vocals, gave new perspective to Darwish’s powerful poetry in which Ahmad is the protagonist. While it’s tough to interpret the Arabic poems in English, it should help that the English translation is courtesy one of Lebanon’s leading academics, Dr Fawwaz Traboulsi.
Here are some of the lines that Khalifé and Oumeima El Khalil sang: “And Ahmad was the sea’s migration among bullet shots, a refugee-camp that grows and breeds thyme and fighters, a memory recovered on passing trains, on platforms with no passengers or jasmine, Ahmad was self-discovery in cars or on the seashore, in the darkness of prison cells in brethren countries, in fleeting relationships and in the quest for Truth.”
Often, Khalifé recited poetry right after a song, and the effect was striking. Sample this spoken part, as interpreted in its English translation: “… wandering among the details I sought support on waters and collapsed. Must I lose the frontiers of my heart whenever a quince ripens? Or seek refuge in a siege to determine my residence… O, Ahmad al-Arabi? Love did not fail me yet when night falls, a distant toll absorbs me and I have only my running blood to define my identity.”
The poem continues, “The bread of my enemies is still soaked with my blood, whenever I take to a road, roads, far and near, flee under my steps. Whenever I befriend a city the suitcase is thrown in my face, and I seek refuge on the quay of dreams and poems. How long have I marched towards my dream… to be overthrown by daggers. Ah for my dream and for Rome! Beautiful are you in exile, assassinated in Rome.”
The poems spoke of patriotism, heroism and Arab unity, and at one point, the audience broke into a hearty applause when they felt swayed by Khalifé’s rendition of Darwish’s compelling lines: “I rise from dry bread and requisitioned water… I rise from a wandering lost horse on the road to the airport, I rise from the sea breeze, From shrapnels addicted to my body… from eyes seeking sunset in the plain, from groceries boxes… from the force of things, I do rise, and identify with the poor in all the alleys chanting: we shall overcome… we shall overcome… we shall overcome!”
A resounding standing ovation from a crowd of more than 500 patrons later, the 80-minute concert had come to a close. Backstage, Khalifé, who also happens to be QPO’s founding music director and resident composer, was swarmed by dozens of his admirers; from teenagers to men in their 60s like him. “It pleases me to see what we could achieve together,” Khalifé said, amidst posing for phone camera pictures with his fans, “It was a little tense on stage but it was also very satisfactory.”
The Arab world is as familiar with Khalifé’s layered compositions as it is with Darwish’s rich poetry. Khalifé was a teacher at the conservatory of music in Beirut from 1970 to 1975, before he created the Al Mayadeen Ensemble and became a global star with songs like Ummi (My mother), Jawaz al-Safar (Passport), and Rita W’al-Bunduqiya (Rita and the rifle), based on Darwish’s poetry.
The Khalifé-Darwish connection is indeed unique. Fady Joudah, Palestinian-American poet and winner of the PEN prize for his translations of Darwish’s poetry, noted that there is perhaps no parallel in our modern times to the artistic bond that the two fiercely independent artistes share.
“It is rare that a celebrated musician is the twin manifestation of a great contemporary poet. Khalifé’s deep reading of Darwish’s poetry lasted over the four decades of the poet’s life. If an author’s dream is to have one true reader, Darwish found a special one in Marcel,” Joudah said, “Darwish and Marcel shared an exalted belief that, while it can, art does not dance alone.”
Though he has toured the biggest world music festivals and collaborated with celebrated artistes and orchestras, Khalifé is perhaps most famous for being the man who was able to liberate the oud from the stringent techniques that governed its playing. By marrying everything from classical Arabic to jazz music, Khalifé’s music embraces the good in everything the world has to offer.
The celebrated composer’s musical dedication to the Palestinian cause saw him being granted the Palestine Award for music in 1999, and in 2005, he was named the Unesco Artist for Peace. It’s easy to understand why.
Before leaving the venue, Khalifé said, “When I sing these songs, they come straight from my heart.” And nobody would have any trouble believing that.
By Anand Holla
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